The second you say time

tick-tock

The second you say time
Punctuality is one of the noblest qualities a human being can possess, but this trait is alien to most Indians. While the rich and famous are notorious for their lack of punctuality, the common man is not far behind when it comes to the total lack of time sense.

Many years ago, a well-known philosopher was invited by the late Sri Sathya Sai Baba to deliver a lecture in one of his schools. The talk was scheduled for 11 am, and Baba was looking alarmed as the speaker had not yet arrived, though it was only two minutes past the scheduled time. Punctuality was one of the core values Baba constantly tried to imbibe in his disciples, and thus arriving even two minutes behind schedule was unpardonable.

Shared experience
Seeing Sai Baba anxiously waiting for him at the classroom door, the philosopher profusely apologised, “Kindly excuse me, Swami; I am late by two minutes.” The speaker was taken aback when Baba sternly reprimanded him, “You are late by 80 minutes, not two minutes.” As the perplexed speaker protested, Baba explained, “I agree you are only late by two minutes. There are 40 students in the class. You have taken away two minutes of each of them, and that means you have wasted 80 minutes.” Realising his mistake, the speaker promised Baba that he would never be late again. The philosopher lived almost up to a 100 years, and he remained punctual at all his assignments until his last day.

The words ‘two minutes’ have become a figure of speech in India. When somebody says, “I will be there in two minutes,” it could range from anywhere between two minutes and 20 minutes, or more. No doubt, the Indian Standard Time (IST) is often referred to as the Indian Stretchable Time.

Celebrities and politicians are the worst of the lot. “Celebrities often show up late for events and parties as they believe it builds a sense anticipation and generates a certain amount of mystique. However, when this attitude of arriving ‘fashionably late’ extends to official meetings and shoots, it can be potentially disastrous, and even ruin careers,” says Mumbai-based makeover and etiquette expert Jasmine Arora.

The same philosophy applies to politicians who derive some kind of vicarious pleasure from making people wait. Once, a chief minister who had an appointment with Field Marshal K M Cariappa, a strict disciplinarian, failed to turn up even after half an hour. When the chief minister finally arrived, Cariappa had locked the main doors of the house and refused to allow him in. Only after making the chief minister wait for a full 30 minutes did Cariappa open the door, but not before extracting an apology.

However, a rare exception among politicians was former Karnataka chief minister R Gundu Rao, who always swore by his watch. At a seminar on national integration, where he was the key speaker, Gundu Rao had arrived on time, but there was no sign of the other guests. After waiting for a while, the former chief minister walked up to the dais, delivered the welcome address, his own speech, the vote of thanks, and simply walked out of the venue, leaving the organisers gaping!

Politicians who argue that they are unable to keep time because they are constantly accosted by people should probably take a leaf out of Mahatma Gandhi’s book. Once, while driving to deliver a lecture at Annamalai University, Gandhiji’s motorcade was stopped by a large group of people which requested him to participate in a feast being attended by both the upper and lower castes. Though the issue was close to his heart, Gandhiji politely excused himself because he feared he would be late for his engagement at the university. Even as the crowd surrounded his car demanding that he alight, Gandhiji managed to escape and reach the university. Though he was delayed by less than a minute, he began his speech with, “I humbly apologise for arriving late.”

B-School professor and management guru Boman Moradian blames the lack of time sense among Indians on double standards. “When we avail of some service, we always expect the best. The irony is that when it comes to ‘receiving’, we have a standard which is ‘zero deviation’, but when it comes to ‘doing’ or ‘giving’, we believe in ‘this-will-do attitude’. This double standard percolates in all that we do, and absence of punctuality is one of them.”

Yet, there are many for whom punctuality is next only to godliness. The late K Sankaran Nayar, publisher of a newspaper in Bengaluru, never took a chance with time, even when he had to visit his daughter for a meal. Google maps had not yet come into existence in the 90s and whenever Nayar received an invitation, he would send his car on a ‘recce’ the previous day to measure the time taken to reach the destination. Such people are rare and far between.

Punctuality, elsewhere
Not being punctual is the norm rather than the exception in India. Even well-educated people, senior corporate executives and academicians have a complete disregard for the time of others. We do not recognise that when we waste another person’s time, we consume a slice of their life, over which we have no right. Anglican clergyman Richard Cecil could not have put it better when he said, “If I have made an appointment with you, I owe you punctuality. I have no right to throw away your time, if I do my own.”

Though across the world punctuality is regarded as the soul of business, in India meetings usually never begin on time because somebody or the other is always late. As most executives do not believe in time-budgeting, they often find it impossible to strike a work-life balance, leading to stress, frustration and broken families.

In Japan, which is regarded as the most punctual country in the world, executives arrive for an appointment at least five minutes in advance because it takes that much time to get seated and settled so that the meeting can get started on schedule.

Over the years, the contempt for time has become an accepted standard in India. It is perfectly alright for plays, concerts and movies to start late; no brows are raised when guests arrive for dinner much after the scheduled time; and when it comes to public transport, we take it in our stride even if our trains run 24 hours late.

In Japan, the pressure to stick to the schedule is so high that train conductors apologise profusely even over a one-minute delay. The average delay of the bullet train is said to be less than six seconds. The Japanese view any delay in service as a betrayal of customer confidence.

The utter disrespect for punctuality is so deep-rooted in the Indian culture that we have absolutely no qualms about arriving late for appointments or social engagements, without even a hint of guilt, shame or regret. And if you expect an apology, banish the thought.

“Lack of punctuality is often a cultural trait. This is reflected by phrases like ‘anytime is Trinidad time’, ‘work slowly’ (East Africa), and ‘time is money’ (USA). A majority of Indians are notorious late-comers. One of the reasons for this late-coming is that many Indians have a fatalistic attitude towards life and work. We have a low sense of our worth... of not being important because everything is determined by fate. Hence, arriving early or late hardly matters,” says noted psychologist and retired Bangalore University vice-chancellor M S Thimmappa.

Punctuality is an attribute which, if not imbibed at an early age, is difficult to adapt at a later stage in life. In the late 50s, prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru, who was invited to inaugurate the newly constructed swimming pool at Sri Ramakrishna Vidyashala, Mysuru, arrived a few minutes late. But the school authorities did not wait for Nehru and went ahead with the inaugural ceremony after garlanding his photograph because they did not want to set a bad example to the students. Even to this day, the daily routine in this school is driven by clockwork precision.

On the converse, turning up at private parties or public functions much before the appointed time also amounts to a breach of etiquette as the organisers or the hosts are usually busy with last-minute preparations. When General Cariappa was elevated to a five-star Field Marshal, the people of Coorg had organised a civic reception in his honour. Though the General arrived half-an-hour in advance, he patiently waited in his car outside the venue, only to alight five minutes before the scheduled time and walk up to the stage. Needless to say, the function began and ended on time, a rarity in India. The solider believed in respecting others’ time as much as he did his.

Most Indians fail to realise that people who are punctual are a class apart. It is a quality that distinguishes the cultured from the uncultured. As Louis XVIII of France said, “Punctuality is the politeness of the kings. It adds grace to our personality and years to our life.”

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